The other day when standing in line at the lunch truck, I watched someone buy a sandwich and ask for napkins. Big deal, right? To my surprise, he was handed both napkins and a plastic fork and spoon. He turned around and walked off, throwing the cutlery in a trash can 10 feet away.
This was among the shortest product lifespans I’ve ever witnessed. Of course, that got me thinking: What is the average lifespan of a plastic fork, spoon or knife? Ten minutes? How often is plastic cutlery thrown away without even being used? How much is disposed of every day? And—one of my least favorite questions—what material is the most eco-friendly?
Fork usage makes a big difference in the world of solid waste. Let’s take a look at your average one-eighth-inch thick plastic fork. How many people do you think pick up (or more likely, are given without asking) a disposable plastic fork each day in the U.S.? Even estimating a low number like a half million gives us a 100-mile-long bridge of forks (that’s not even including spoons and knives).
So, what are your options? Obviously, I definitely support using a metal fork over and over again instead of tossing a plastic fork every day.
Compostable plastic forks are an improvement, but they’re expensive and I don’t expect most businesses to purchase them. On top of that, they’re not suitable for home composting (trust me, I’ve tried), and are troublesome for commercial composting facilities because they take several cycles to biodegrade completely.
When compostable forks hit the landfills, they degrade slowly. While methane collection systems in landfills have improved airflow to an otherwise anaerobic pit, they aren’t magical places full of biodegradation faeries.
A few months ago, the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. stopped using compostable utensils and cups in exchange for styrofoam and plastic. Big mistake. They could have kept the compost program by switching to paper cups and plates (both compostable and cheaper than bioplastics). Even better, they could have utilized metal utensils, which would have reduced waste significantly.
So, I challenge you to have your own silverware on hand. Instead of using a new plastic fork every day, place one at your desk. After eating, rinse your fork when you hit the restroom.
Are you a food service entrepreneur? How about purchasing metal sporks, reusable to-go containers or reusable chopsticks? Consider customizing them for your business and design a discount program. Similar to the coffee mug bandwagon, have your customers passively advertising for you by getting a discount on their meal or snack when they bring their reusable cutlery or container. These items are usually small enough to fit in a purse or wallet, so it’s rather easy.
Tyler Weaver is a garbage and compost expert who’s been obsessed with waste since he climbed into his first Dumpster two decades ago. Read more of his musings at tylertalkstrash.com and crazyaboutcompost.com.